Sunday, December 20, 2009

86-year-old masters UMSL


"I don't do facebooking or tweeting, but self-checkout I can handle," said Ken Wilde who at 86 is the oldest master's degree recipient at UMSL. Wilde, with his wife Eve, shopped at Dierberg's in preparation for a dinner party Friday night. (Robert Cohen/P-D)
BY KAVITA KUMAR
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
12/19/2009

Ken Wilde is not the kind of college student that professors have to nudge to talk in class. His hand is usually one of the first to go up.

History — 20th century European history, to be exact — is his forte, which is not surprising given his past. He often gives firsthand accounts to his classmates of living through Kristallnacht in pre-war Berlin, of the Kindertransport program that helped Jewish children like himself escape from Germany, and of his time serving with the British Army at the end of World War II.

And then there are the more obvious ways Wilde stands out from his classmates. He wears sweater vests. He doesn't have a Facebook page. He has seven grandchildren. And he's 86.

When he walks across the stage today at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, in his cap and gown — and a hood he has still not quite figured out — the ceremony will pause as Chancellor Thomas George will share some special words about him. Wilde will become the school's oldest graduate.


Well, actually, make that the school's oldest graduate to get a master's degree. UMSL originally thought he was the school's oldest graduate of any kind but then came upon the record of a student who was 87 when she got her bachelor's degree in 1978.

"I had my five minutes of fame," Wilde said, laughing about the e-mail he received from UMSL on Wednesday to tell him about the recent discovery.

But that's just fine with him.


His wife, Eve, would also rather people not focus so much on Wilde's age but on his accomplishments.

Not having a college degree was something that nagged him from time to time. And it didn't help that his younger brother ended up becoming a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Minnesota.

It's not that Wilde was not intellectually curious. To the contrary, he was always reading and up on current events. Their house has always been filled with books.

"I never really felt a lack of education," Wilde said. "But I never had a degree in any way."

It's just that World War II got in the way.

As he got older, he took classes here and there through a local university or community education program, but he never had time to really focus on it with a demanding career and a family to raise.

LIFE IN RETIREMENT

Wilde grew up in Berlin, where his father ran a clothing store. When he was 15, he fled to London via the Kindertransport, through which thousands of Jewish children escaped concentration camps.

After the war, he reunited with his parents and younger brother in St. Louis. He was 22 years old and needed to find a job. His first stop was Stix, Baer & Fuller (now Dillard's). He was hired. It didn't matter then that he didn't have a college degree, or even a high school degree, for that matter.

He went on to have a 42-year career with the company, eventually traveling around the world as a buyer for the book department, then for custom jewelry and stationery. He retired in 1989.

But he continued to keep busy afterward, working for the United Way and helping to lead a reading group that still meets every other week at a church in University City to discuss the literary heavyweights such as Hemmingway and Fitzgerald.

He volunteered— and continues to do so — as a tutor through the literary council and delivering meals to the needy through Meals on Wheels.

It was his wife who finally persuaded him to take some classes with her at St. Louis Community College at Meramec in 1993. He did it just for fun at first, but then a supportive instructor encouraged him to go all the way to get his degree.

At Meramec, he wrote papers for the first time in decades, learning about run-on sentences and ins-and-outs of grammar rules. And he trudged through college algebra.

"Not my strong suit," he says, still wincing today at those miserable days. "I was lucky to get a C."

With his associate's degree under his belt, he moved on to UMSL, where he was a straight-A student, save for a lone A-minus in a Civil War history class. He laughs about it now, noting how he even went to the Library of Congress in Washington to research a paper for that class.

It was his intellectual curiosity that kept him going. He threw himself into research papers. For one paper, he looked into the lynching of a German miner in Collinsville around the time of World War I, visiting the man's grave in south St. Louis.

While it was not as unusual to see retirees in his classes at Meramec, he was more of an anomaly at UMSL. He worried on the first day of class that people would think he was the professor.

But he was heartened to discover that no one — not the professors and not his fellow classmates — made him feel out of place.

"Nobody ever made me feel I was a square peg in a round hole," he said,

Andrew Hurley, chairman of the UMSL history department, said it's not unheard of to have people in their 60s or 70s in his classes. But Wilde stood out in other ways — mainly his life experiences that added to classroom discussions. Wilde quickly emerged as a leader in the classroom.

"He was very diligent," Hurley said. "He always did all of the reading."

Now, 155 credit hours later, Wilde's time as a college student has finally come to an end. He has no desire to get a PhD.

"I think there comes a time when you say enough is enough," he said. "I'm not going to sit down to write a 500-page thesis. Who has that time?"

Still, he hopes to audit a class or two now and then if a topic piques his interest.

His three grown children and six of his seven grandchildren will be in the audience today when he gets his master's degree in history. But in some way, it will be a bittersweet day. An end of sorts to his formal identity as a college student. No more research papers to write. No more UMSL library card.

"And no more frat parties," quipped his son, Larry, an attorney who came from Washington to see his father graduate.

"No more frat parties," Wilde agreed, nodding his head with a straight face.

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